Game of Thrones and Storytelling

A disclaimer: I have read only the first novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and have watched the show to the current episode. Spoilers for the show follow.

In Season One of Game of Thrones, and by extension the first novel, I was — as anyone would be — “cheering for” Ned Stark. I think I even knew that he was going to die while I did it. But in Ned we had a character we could really root for, someone we could identify with and empathise with when things went to shit, but still hold out some hope that something would go right.

In season two, that character was probably Tyrion. We liked him; we liked to watch him succeed despite his troubles, felt for him when things didn’t go his way. We might cheer for other characters, be upset when they were killed or shat upon… but I’m starting to notice that I almost don’t care any more. Especially so with the Red Wedding. I was far more upset that Catelyn was killed than Rob — I was pretty sure he was doomed, and his storyline was less than compelling — but even she had lost a lot of my love in this last season.

What’s happened is that Game of Thrones has stopped being a story for me. A story needs to be something I can really engage with, something that invokes empathy. It used to be a bit of a Hero’s Journey for some of the characters. Now everyone just goes along until they die.

Game of Thrones has become a history.

Which is to say, it’s extremely interesting. I like the narrative. There are certainly characters I want to see succeed (Arya, Gendry, Dani, Sansa). But I’ve become jaded to the storyline. I’ve become less invested.


I watched the first season before I read the first book. I liked how that worked out for me, because it meant I could relive the good storylines while getting more detailed lore about the world; it didn’t feel like the show had spoiled it for me.

I’ll almost certainly keep watching the show. I do want to see where it goes and to some extent I still feel invested it in. But I don’t think I’ll ever finish the books. I just don’t care to invest 800 pages times 5+ novels in history. Game of Thrones has fallen into the same trap for me as The Lord of the Rings. It’s just…not a good story. It’s a description of events that happened.

I need some up with my down. I need some triumph. I need people I want to spend hours of my life with, and an emotional payoff for that investment. Otherwise — I dunno — I think you’re doing it wrong. 

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  1. Andrew

    I think you’re using the word “story” here as code for “the type of story I prefer”.

    • A fair point. I think what I meant was more “story” as “story as we traditionally view story, as character arc and heroic journey and something that we can relate to” but absolutely that translates as “the type of story that I think is a good story”. I’ve talked about it a bit before too, that I really think the kind of world-building that Tolkien and Martin do belongs in a wiki, not a novel, because the novel should be the *story*, the characters and their actions etc. But I completely don’t disparage the people who were profoundly affected by these scenes; to each their own. I just think it could be done differently.

      • Andrew

        What about the novels of, say, Edward Rutherfurd (London, New York, etc.) ? Are these not stories? I mean, I’d say there’s a fairly clear difference between those novels and an actual history book of the city in question.

        • I don’t know them and so can’t respond directly. Obviously though “story” has a pretty broad definition. YMMV but I find the best novels/movies/narrative stories are those in which there’s at least one character I can empathise with and that offer me at least a bit of hope — for the story and for humanity IRL by allegory.

          • Andrew

            I made the post kind of quickly, so I didn’t explain. I was trying to figure out what you consider story, as per your original use. You seem to be saying that you either want a novel that is mostly about one person’s journey, or have the information on the world bereft of narrative. There’s nothing really wrong with this…it just seems to judge a *lot* of books (some that I’ve liked) as not doing it the right way.

  2. Matthew Beilman

    Lucas, not to sound presumptuous but you sound to me like a heartbroken friend who is trying to come to grips with loss.

    Personally, I have never felt the way I did when I read through the Red Wedding portion of ‘A Storm of Swords’. No book has ever brought me such terrible horror. No story has ever really made me think sadly back to a moment in the fiction where things go wrong, and made me sincerely wish that it wasn’t so. In short, no book has ever caused me to grieve.

    So when you say you have lost your empathy, is it because you CANT empathize because the characters have stopped being empathetic, or WONT empathize, because dammit that hurt! And who want’s to get hurt again?

    I can’t agree that Ice and Fire’s isn’t a good story. I think that it defies classic Epic Fantasy at every turn, and not always in ways that make us feel good. If it was one of those classics, Eddard would still be our protagonist, and if Ned died, then we could expect Robb to gloriously rise from the ashes to avenge him. But this isn’t that kind of story.

    So yeah, it hurts right now. Maybe more hurt is on the way, or maybe things will get better. Call me a glutton for punishment, but the Red Wedding only makes me want to see what will happen to the survivors next.

    “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” –Franz Kafka

    • I can still empathize. I kind of saw the events of the Red Wedding coming (partially from hints I’d picked up, though I’d seen no explicit spoilers) so it really didn’t affect me much. I think the characters ceased to be empathetic; I’ve never thought Robb was particularly empathetic.

      I’m absolutely on board with screwing with things, like killing Ned in the first one. But when it happens over and over and over and we’re not given *any* character that we can really follow and cheer for, it gets old. Three seasons of this has made me jaded, that’s all.

      You say “only makes me want to see what will happen to the survivors next” and I have to think “they’re all just going to die at some point so what’s the point?”

      And I disagree with Kafka. I think good stories should hurt us somewhat, and they should make us think, but they also should offer us hope, offer us a way forward, give us something to live for and to strive for. And Game of Thrones just keeps beating us into the dirt, over and over. Yeah, I get it. Sometimes life sucks. But you know what? Sometimes it’s beautiful and happy and triumphant and we can make the world a better place.

      • Matthew Beilman

        Sometimes a 14 year old war-crime victim hatches some dragon-eggs, and starts freeing ancient oligarchies from slavery too… Just sayin :)

        • Which has some troubling “white saviour” suggestions.

          A good point though. I just think 5000 pages to see her actually make a difference in Westeros, if she even does, is a bit much. Martin’s just fucking with people now.

          • Andrew (the best one)

            Sorry, but I have to disagree with you, Lucas.

            In my mind (obviously YMMV), the best stories have always been the ones that feel real. Fantasy is great, and a writer putting their audience through the ringer on a regular basis isn’t a good situation, but a writer who breaks the immersion by offering too much fantasy, or worse yet, is predictable because they want to offer a happy ending, is a far more serious “crime” in my opinion.

            Lord of the Rings is a FANTASTIC story that is a great success in spite of it being horribly written. And while I do agree that lore and jargon get in the way of a good story far more often than they don’t, positivity and fantastical heroics are not required ingredients of storytelling.

  3. Meg

    I’ve read both LOTR and the first 4 ASOIAF books, and am slowly moving towards the third. And I like them, personally. But you have some good points about GOT here.

    Specifically, in some ways I think that the rate at which GRRM kills off characters actually does detract from the story. Ned’s death hurt. It hit hard. I cried at Drogos death. The Red Wedding hit hard too, but its impact was dulled by the amount of deaths in the series. It does make you check out emotionally and go, “What’s the point of even caring? He’s just going to find some other terrible way to torture this character.” You can argue that this detachment only happens to protect ourselves from more pain but, isn’t the bottom line in stories that you shouldn’t WANT to do that? You should stay invested in those characters even if it hurts, because you still have hope for them. But GRRM has squashed hope. Nothing goes right for anyone. Ned’s death was a good one in fantasy. The kind of death that hurts, but just makes you want vengeance and to stick with a story.

    You can argue it’s realistic and things don’t always turn out well in reality. But. Real life is depressing enough. Sometimes you need a little hope. This is where I personally think that Tolkien succeeds over Martin. Even in LOTR, long and descriptive as it may be, we still have something we are striving for. A goal. Hope. Where is this in ASOIAF? The only real hope is that my remaining favorites don’t get fucked over terribly. Not a whole lot of hope there.

    That all being said, I do intend to finish the series. Assuming GRRM actually manages to finish it because, let’s face it, the man writes like a snail. I also think the books are better than the TV show because a lot has been lost in transition from page to screen. Especially to characters like Catelyn, Sansa and Brienne, because of the (frankly) absurd degree of misogyny of the show runners. And the subversion of the fantasy narrative present in the books (the Kings are not the great heroes. They do not get a voice in this. ) gets lost in the screen version.

    • Yeah, that’s pretty much where I am. And totally fair points about the book itself! I did enjoy the first one for the most part. I just also have so many other books to read, I need to prioritize to some extent ^_^

  4. In response to Andrew, above:
    “Lord of the Rings is a FANTASTIC story that is a great success in spite of it being horribly written.” Good point! Have to separate writing from story, and I think my conflation of LotR and GoT was not totally warranted (specifically, a separate issue from what I’m really talking about).

    Realism is great, or rather the illusion or feeling of realism, and absolutely there needs to be some unpredictability to avoid being completely, well, predictable. But it also has to make me care. (And I’ve seen some suggestions that GRRM has started just putting in random massacres to keep up his reputation of being unpredictable. I think this is more harmful to the story than any benefit of being unpredictable.) There’s a balance to maintain: doing something different than what’s been done before, and making a story that doesn’t destroy all of your hope and feelings.

    • Andrew (not the best one?)

      I haven’t read asoiaf since the 5th book came out, but I can’t really remember a killing of a main character that I’d consider random or arbitrary. From what I recall, for the really big ones, the characters had kind worked them selves into a corner. It’s not like they were on the road one day and bandits came out of nowhere and killed them all, and we never hear of the bandits again.

      I also think it’s an overstatement to say the story has destroyed all hopes and feelings. I still care about a number of the characters.

  5. Stuart

    Like you I’ve only read the first volume. I’ve been told that the sense of events merely happening, without narrative, intensifies, which I guess is a risk of the sprawling multi-viewpoint technique.

    I think there’s potential for a return of narrative– the idea seems to be to drive the smallest human elements of the starting scenario to their farthest points, transform them, and then bring them back for combination. Alchemical drama kind of thing (and note that the serious magic is all at the periphery, and intensifying). So it wouldn’t surprise me to see Bran, Sansa, Arya, Jon, Tyrion, and Daenerys undergo separate hero’s journeys and all have a narrative role at the conclusion. (Maybe some of these are dead already, I don’t know.) And in the meantime there’s just a bunch of senseless bother.

    It’s like Shakespeare’s histories, which Martin is certainly emulating or reworking. The series starts at the beginning of Henry VI part II, and right now (on TV) we’re somewhere near the end of it, verging on part III. It’s a long noisy way to go before Henry VII gives it some magic closure. The narrative is there throughout, I know from experience, but it’s, um, not obvious. We’ll see if late Martin is up to early Shakespeare. 😉

    • Great analysis, and I generally agree. We’ll definitely have to see where GRRM takes it, and for now all we have is speculation. I think my point is essentially that several books worth of ‘long noisy way’ is just bad storytelling. If the beginning is great and the end is great, there’s got to be a better way to do the middle that’s also great.

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